Journalists facing deadly risks

Photojournalist wearing a gas mask covers civil unrest in Cairo.  Image Alisdare Hickson

Not for the first time, I’m ruminating about the deadly risks facing journalists working in conflict zones or countries like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt or even India.

It’s 1am and I’m reading the Guardian Weekly, starting with its world roundup, where my eye is drawn to a headline: “Indian journalist beaten to death.” In just 100 words we are told that Shantanu Bhowmick’s death at the hands of a stick-wielding mob brings the tally of reporters killed in India since the 1990s to 29.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) outlines the risks facing individuals in India who have made Right to Information (RTI) requests. Since the law came into force in 2005, at least 69 people have been murdered after they filed RTI requests. Another 130 journalists have been victims of assault and 170 reported being harassed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 1,746 journalists and 104 media workers have been killed world-wide since 1992.

What makes these statistics more compelling is that the majority of deaths were not random: a motive was confirmed in 1,253 cases.

The Committee to Protect Journalists maintains a list of the riskiest countries in which to work as a journalist. The list is based on the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

Eritrea is No 1 on the list of regimes which censor the press and the Internet, followed by North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan. Vietnam, Iran, China, Myanmar and Cuba.

There are 23 journalists behind bars in Eritrea. None has been tried in court or even charged with a crime. The Internet is available, but only 1% of the population goes online, using slow, dial-up connections. Only 5.6% of Eritreans own a cell phone. In North Korea, 9.7% of the population have (official) cell phones but an unknown number have phones smuggled in from China. A few individuals have Internet access, but schools and institutions are limited to a tightly controlled Intranet.

The CPJ says tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries.

“To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.”

This was not helping my insomnia. I turned to page nine, to reporter Joshua Robertson’s full-page coverage of Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. The story includes interviews with residents of Warwick (Queensland), apparently the last bastion of the ‘No’ vote.

Robertson went to an un-named club in Warwick, a town of 15,000 on the Southern Downs, to interview un-named people about the town’s apparent reputation as a ‘No’ Vote stronghold.

“The bible says it’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it,” one woman in the club said, chiding her husband, who was yet to make up his mind.

The reporter also travelled to Roma, an oil and gas town in western Queensland. He interviewed a public servant who said he felt more comfortable being “out” in Roma that in Sydney or Melbourne.

Meanwhile in Queensland

As news assignments go, Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary would not fall into the category of risk that faced Shantanu Bhowmick or the other 44 foreign journalists and media workers killed so far in 2017.

These global statistics make the life of a working journalist in Australia look comparatively benign. But not so if you accept an assignment to file news reports, video or images from conflict zones. In 2015, Australian journalist Peter Greste laid a wreath at a new memorial in Canberra recognising the contribution of war correspondents. It was fitting that Greste was chosen for this honour as he’d not long returned to Australia after being imprisoned in Egypt, along with Al Jazeera comrades.

The memorial in a sculpture garden at the Australian War Memorial honours 26 war correspondents killed in combat zones. They range from William Lambie (Boer War 1899-1902) to cameraman Paul Moran, killed during a suicide bombing in Iraq, 2003. Also named is sound recordist Paul Little, who died in a German hospital in 2003 after being caught up in an ambush in Iraq. Also laying a wreath in September 2015 was Shirley Shackleton, widow of Balibo Five reporter Greg Shackleton, one of five Australian journalists killed in East Timor in 1975.

And Australians might want to think about these crucial issues of press freedom and the right to information. On Monday, the ABC’s Four Corners, still the best in the business, sent a reporter and producer to India to dig into the background of conglomerate Adani. It was a good example of journalists taking risks in risky territory. The Four Corners team were grilled for five hours by ‘crime branch’ police after filming at a controversial Adani-owned site. Four Corners investigated Adani’s environmental record and business probity because the Indian company wants the Australian Government to provide a $1 billion loan to underwrite the world’s biggest coal mine in western Queensland and associated rail and port infrastructure.

Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary, meanwhile, reminds us that not so very long ago, the State lived under a repressive regime. In 1989 the last criminal charges were brought (in Roma) under Queensland’s homosexuality laws. These were the last days of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime (1967-1987), an era when news gathering or protesting was riskier than they are today.

As one of the thousands of bearded, long-haired men who joined their saffron-robed women, wafting about King George Square in a cloud of patchouli essence and acrid cigarette smoke, championing anything that was anti-Joh, I suspect my photo is in a dusty Special Branch file somewhere.

Journalists working in Queensland through the Joh-era needed a Press Pass, which had to be shown whenever entering government buildings. I still have my pass, signed by the former Commissioner of Police, Terry Lewis.

Wonder how much that would be worth on eBay?





Cucumbers and the silly season

Photo by Scott Elias

All through my journalism career I tried to take holidays at this time of year – the peak summer period known universally as the ‘silly season’ It’s called that, here and abroad, to describe the sudden drying up of real news stories (or even cleverly disguised fake stories). The media must continue on its 24/7 quest for yarns, but the fare becomes increasingly trivial, short on detail and (gasp) exaggerated.

In Australia, the ‘do not disturb’ sticker can safely be slapped across the calendar between December 23 and January 26. This is when all traditional news sources and their spin doctors head for the beach. Businesses close, parliaments and law courts go into recess. It’s down to emergency services to keep the media fed, and there’s a limit to the amount of mayhem holiday-makers can digest through the festive season.

Smoke but not much fire

Here’s a splendid example of a silly season story, introduced by a breathless headline: “Warwick church struck by lightning”. The fire brigade turned out in numbers to St Mary’s Catholic Church, a Warwick landmark, as did spectators. St Mary’s administrator Kathleen Cuskelly told FOMM the fire was not serious but could have been without the call to emergency services by a witness to the lightning strike. The blaze, which damaged two square metres of ceiling above the side aisle, was extinguished by a lone firefighter who found his way in through a back door.

The church-hit-by-lightning yarn certainly livened up the week for weather-watchers, braced as always for a natural disaster but more often left without a real story.

Mariah Carey’s Times Square technically-flawed performance on New Year’s Eve had the celebrity writers rolling in oily hyperbole. Carey described by as the ‘golden-throated chart-topper’ was left on centre stage unable to cope with lip syncing which went awry. Someone played the wrong track, leaving the lesser-crested warbler nonplussed. The Daily Mail (UK) summed it up:

Mariah Carey has stormed off stage after she lashed out during her botched New Year’s Eve performance, after the wrong lip-sync track played.”

That’s a lot of storming and lashing over a relatively tiny tinkle in a teacup. Besides, Mariah sang the hell out of Auld Lang Syne at the start and that’s what counts, right? And she appeared to know all the words.

A few days prior to this earth-trembling news, like so many other heat-stressed people, I was hanging out in the local supermarket, hovering around the deli fridges, a packet of frozen peas clamped to the back of the neck. My mobile chirped and there was a text message: “jar of pickles pls.” Thus challenged, I quickly grabbed a jar, added it to the week’s supply of groceries and headed for the check-out.

The peak summer months, when Europeans and North Americans lock up and head for the beaches, coincides with the cucumber harvest. So their ‘silly season’ is known in many northern countries as ‘cucumber time’.

The ever-useful Wikipedia reveals that in many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers (more precisely: gherkins or pickled cucumbers). Examples given include komkommertijd (Dutch), agurketid (Danish) and agurktid (Norwegian, where a piece of news is called agurknytt i.e., “cucumber news”).

There are other examples: the Sommerloch (“summer (news) hole”) in German-speaking countries; la morte-saison (France) and nyhetstorka or news drought, in Sweden.

Media analysts have speculated that people employed as public relations consultants or media advisors in private enterprise and government now outnumber real journalists by five to one. The highly-paid spin doctors take January off and go to the beach. So their carefully crafted “news” releases, sanitised, scrutinised and signed off on by at least 10 people slow to a trickle then stop.

Meanwhile, the skeleton squads left holding the news forts have to forage for items to fill the ironically larger news holes (in the newspaper business advertising also takes a holiday). So the only thing a reporter or a news crew can do is follow the fire engine. On arrival, take emotive video of the cat stuck up a gum tree and hope (though only deep within their craven souls) that the rescuer in the cherry-picker might take a nasty tumble from a great height. The video editor can lip-sync it later and the presenter can do the nodding I-was-really-there-honest footage later. Back to you in the studio, Brian.

Bob Hawke lobbies for nuclear waste (again)

Perhaps the most egregious silly season story thus far was the reporting of comments made at a Woodford Festival talk by former PM Bob Hawke. Mr Hawke said Australia should embrace nuclear power and become a country where the world can store its nuclear waste. Mr Hawke has said this before, many times, but most news reports lacked this kind of background.

Warming up for Woodford, perhaps, Mr Hawke trotted out the nuclear waste trope at Sydney University late last year.

In 2013 he singled out South Australia, a vast and sparsely populated state, as best suited to (underground) storage of nuclear waste.

At Woodford 2016, the 87-year-old former politician employed much the same rhetoric he used when floating the idea in September 2005:

“Australia has the geologically safest places in the world for the storage of waste,” he then told the 7.30 Report’s Mark Bannerman.

“What Australia should do, in my judgement, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world’s nuclear waste.”

Then Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley sharply responded to the comments by Hawke (who retired from politics in 1992):

“Bob is a respected father figure in the Labor Party, but that’s well outside the platform.”

In 1999, foreign company Pangea Resources tabled a specific proposal to build an underground radioactive nuclear waste storage facility in central Australia. South Australia and Western Australia swiftly responded by passing nuclear storage prohibition acts. Nick Minchin, Federal Resources minister at the time, said an emphatic ‘no’ and Pangea, a consortium of Swiss and British firms, folded up its tent.

Industry website estimates that the nuclear industry has generated about 76,430 tonnes of used fuel over the past 40 years. Most nuclear plants recycle used fuel, which will ‘eventually’ be permanently stored as high-level radioactive waste. US Congress made a pledge in 1982 to build such a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the proposal has been ensnared in political wrangling since and was shelved by Barack Obama in 2010. Bloomberg reported in November, however, that a Trump White House would make the permanent dump site a priority.

Finland and Sweden are meanwhile working towards the first permanent radioactive waste sites in the world, the first of which could be operational by 2023.

But as then Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told the 7.30 Report in 2005 (and little has changed):

“There are a lot of politics in this. Now, right at the moment, we can’t even get agreement on where to put a nuclear repository for Australia’s waste, let alone a repository for the world’s waste.”

Mark Bannerman closed his 2005 report with this apt quote from a Northern Territory woman:

“If it’s safe, take it down to the Lodge, put it under Kirribilli House. I think they’ve got a hide.”


Each cliche a cliffhanger

Image by Tom Newby

She Who Reads Newspapers: “Dear, it seems a raft of measures has been swept out to sea by a storm of protest.”
“Zounds,” I say (exhuming an archaic oath meaning indignation). “That will teach them not to put all their eggs in one basket.”
There was a time when a journalist wouldn’t touch a cliché with a barge pole, as Nigel Rees says in the introduction to his book, The Joy of Cliches. We all ought to have learned this at our mothers’ knees. Or as per a poster in a venerable Fleet Street news room: “Cliches should be avoided like the plague”. That said, the word itself as a double-word score is worth 26 points.

A cliché is an expression which has lost its original meaning through over-use and thus become trite or irritating. More persistent is the over-use of axioms (a phrase as self-evident as to be taken as a truth) and idioms (wise but clichéd sayings which often make no literal sense).
Today’s generation of journalists seem wedded, indeed married to the notion of over-using axioms, idioms and clichés. Battening down the hatches, they defy the fickle finger of fate, avoid being hoist with their own petards and keep everyone on tenterhooks.
According to, it is a long time since anyone saw a tenter, never mind the hooks. It refers to a process of making woollen cloth involved drying and stretching lengths of wet cloth on wooden frames (tenters), allowing them to dry and straightening their weave. Metal hooks were used to fix the cloth to the frame.
To be on tenterhooks, translating to someone being in a state of anxious suspense, goes back a bit. While fabric makers were using both tenters and hooks from the 11th century, the exact phrase on tenterhooks was first used by Tobias Smollett in Roderick Random in 1748.

Cliches to avoid like the paralysis tick

Steve Lautenschlager compiled 1658 splendid examples of the clichés to which so many of us turn when written or verbal expression finds us wanting. Among these gems are those that mention bridges, under which much water has flowed.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, that is, unless we’ve already burnt it.”

You could spend a bit of time, as I did, hunting down the supposed derivation of such clichéd phrases as ‘dressed to the nines’ (attributed to tailors using nine yards of cloth to make a suit). ‘Too many chiefs and not enough Indians’ is the original and now politically incorrect way of denigrating office politics, committees, boards and editorial meetings. One can vary this to ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ or ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ – in all, they mean too many people attempting to achieve something and in the end achieving nothing.

Babies and bathwater

Now contemplate the vividly awful image of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I suppose it depends what floor you’re on. It also brings a new twist to the 19th century French warning “Garde à l’eau” which residents bellowed before throwing their bedpan contents out of the upstairs bedroom window.

The baby and the bathwater idiom means to discard something valuable along with something not wanted, from the German proverb, Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten, first recorded in English in 1853 by Thomas Carlyle.

Australian journalist Chris Pash has become the unofficial curator of cliché use in journalism.
Pash went through the Dow Jones Factiva database to short-list seven howlers he claims are the worst – in fact he challenges readers to put them all in one sentence. So here goes:

“At the end of the day, there was a split second outpouring of support for the unsung heroes who, after a last ditch effort, saved concerned residents from an embarrassing about face.”

I would have thought ‘sort after’ might get a mention.

Making a sow’s ear and all that

We all should know why journalists, particularly those who have to turn around fresh radio news every half hour, resort to snatching things out of thin air, saving a stitch in time, keeping their shoulder to the wheel, going the extra mile and cutting off their editor’s nose to spite his face.
A fresher way to express the latter would be to say that Alice, who in doing something bad to her editor out of a need for revenge, caused herself more harm because she is now perceived as a hateful harpy who can’t spell “sought after”.
It is truly disturbing in 2015 to peruse Nigel Rees’s book and the chapter about clichés in journalism (he wrote the book in 1984), to find that many are not, as one might expect, dead as a doornail. When all’s said and done, the smell of midnight oil or martyrs burning ought to set alarm bells ringing.

Rees says one of the more useful clichés for a journalist is ‘amid mounting’ – which as he coyly observes has nothing to do with horses or sex. Only journalists can use ‘amid mounting’ as it can be appended to any number of news stories linked to words like ‘opposition’ ‘derision’ ‘calls for his or her resignation’ (or in Oz) ‘calls for another leadership spill’.

Don’t drop the petard

The Phrase Finder’s Gary Martin observes just how many of the tired old maxims and tropes we use derive from the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Consider “Hoist with your own petard.” (Hamlet 1602). A petard is, or rather was, a small bell-shaped device full of gunpowder used to blow breaches in gates or walls. Once you know what it means, being ‘hoist with your own petard’ is easy to fathom. It’s like pulling the pin out of a grenade in a trench then dropping the damn thing so it rolls downhill and under a plank and by the time you lift the plank…
Basically it means hurting yourself while in the act of trying to hurt others. The analogy would not be lost on Tony Abbott, nor, to be fair, on Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, or, in the fullness of time, Malcolm Turnbull.

Throwing glasses at castle walls

We could have some more fun with this but the real reason writers use common clichés and weary phrases is it soaks up the word count in less than no time, or no time at all if you prefer. But it’s a risky business pointing out other writers’ flaws.

As a waggish writer (possibly moi), once quoth: “People who live in stone houses shouldn’t throw glasses.”

So I’ll admit to playing with fire, stirring up an ant’s nest or even opening a can of worms, though why anyone would keep a can of worms in the pantry is anyone’s guess.

I just go with the flow, you know, Steve’s handy cliché list at hand. I’m running with wolves, burning the candle at both ends, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Speaking of which, it’s time to rest on my laurels, so to speak, and hand this over to She Who has Eyes in the Back of her Head, the most sort (sic –Ed!) after editor this side of the Black Stump.